July 6, 2021 Subject:
From the Heart
A slave-girl able to read and write in 1820’s North Carolina was something rare indeed. For this girl to go on and produce a book rated by many as the supreme slave-memoir was an unheard-of achievement.
Being half-white and prettier than most, Harriet Jacobs’ natural place would have been up at the mansion, as one of the favoured house-slaves. But she rejected the sexual advances of her owner, and was forced into hiding in a tiny attic space in her family’s wooden shack for an incredible seven years, while they put it about that she had fled to the free north.
The narrative is essentially about the extraordinary persistence of the owner, a local doctor clearly obsessed by her, and her equally determined avoidance of his unwelcome attentions. This literally became her whole life for at least twenty years, and her chronicle of survival reveals much about slavery, coming from someone on whom it impacted so heavily. (She even claims that her descriptions only scratch the surface of the real thing.)
It is impossible not to empathise with the daily humiliation of being treated as a beast of the field, not a person. Also the sickening hypocrisy of the planter class, with church ministers ordered to preach about slavery as the perfect God-given arrangement of master and man. Then there’s a ready-made climax to the story - the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a dramatic pledge to hunt down the runaways, with members of the public ordered to report anyone who just looked as though they might be a fugitive slave, on pain of a $1000 fine. And how it backfired, with ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and the Underground Railroad… But that is another story.